Floating through gardens: WADS and its states of potentiality

Evagoria (Eria) visited the digital garden of WADS – a virtual exhibition part of Ars Electronica’s Kepler’s Gardens featuring 21 Cypriot-based artists. She examines the exhibition as a prototype and testing ground for new sensory experiments as well as discussing ways to improve Cypriot cultural policy.

When thinking of gardens, I cannot help but reminisce about the defining moments that bound me. My grandmother’s garden is filled with love and care, offering a meticulously curated selection of trees that my grandfather, a soft and sensitive gentleman, planted when each of his grandchildren was born. I think of gardens, I close my eyes for a moment and I remember holding the blossoms of lemon trees in my tiny hands as I looked up at my late grandfather smiling at me. The sun and soil animates all lifeforms much like philosophy animates concepts. It is in a similar way that gardens evoke ideas of growth, cross-pollination and present their previous or current adaptations of structures while being formed by the effects of their environment.

WADS is an exhibition depicting virtual gardens blooming at a difficult time, nevertheless giving motion to new opportunities. It’s a project mainly funded by Rise1 and is part of ARS Electronica’s2 wider involvement with gardens. Even when the worst of (bio)politics3 infect the planet, leaving fear and cruelty in its wake, it is a time that has allowed space for new technologies that bring forefront new ways of being together whilst remaining physically apart. Digital worlds foster new forms of connection between people, data and processes. They transform our analogue surroundings to virtual data-rooms and change the way we interact as well as organise our social and work environments.

VR4 & AR5 technologies aim to immerse the user, allowing a 360° perspective illusion. Its immediacy relies on incorporating as much of the user’s senses and emotions as possible. The exhibition raises questions about the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic implications of digital spaces. Once logged in to the platform you are transported to exotic, utopian and strange places, off into dreamlike scenes, exploring new possibilities by artists that here act as storytellers.

Much like in the physical realm, gardens in the virtual world are cultivated. Virtualities and digital realities depend on techniques6 that are inscribed in our field of experience, an experience where our subjectivity and selfhood are being re-evaluated. We cannot merely question if there is a self within the digital life-worlds, but how, when and under which conditions it exists. More importantly, how we respond, resist and react to this experience. The situations, practices, spaces and mechanisms created remain ever-more open. What does it mean to see, feel, perceive and move within virtual worlds?7

WADS managed to create exhibition spaces and installations using, what feels like, video-game development and navigation tools. The technologies employed push boundaries and open up new spaces for art to inhabit and explore. It is a digitally created architectural environment existing independently of space and time. A physical garden does not merely represent past natural microcosms and lives, but through its present architecture and form, the future too. I wonder to myself whether, as in the context of a garden, WADS had the potential to overturn established hierarchies either in exhibition making or elsewhere – to create a form of grafting8 as the exhibition itself entails. The decisions made available by the artists within these gardens urge us to reconsider the relationships between the things we are most familiar with as binaries; human and animal, nature and technology, organic and artificial, private and public. The ideas of grafting within these elements establishes the potential of WADS to provoke a redistribution of value within the digital space.

Stelios Ilchouk’s Synthetic Shepherds was situated in a dark room with a hint of a virtual sunset. There are digital giant psychedelic and grotesque renditions of sea corals that spin endlessly coated with metallic colours and fluorescent accents. It feels monumental. The ambiguous shapes of the Synthetic Shepherds dance endlessly with wreaths of images displaying automotive parts creating a fusion of elements and images associated with anime and Christianity. Stelios’ semi-synthetic entities encompass the notion of grafting by assimilating different elements; their volume and surface are rigorous and somewhat mesmerising. Such ideas are also evident in Anastasia Dolitsay’s digital veiled sculpture that sings to us, ever more loudly as we get closer to it. The works both exhibit iridescence9, a visual phenomenon that seems to exist only because it is seen. This suits well given that Stelios’ and Anastasia’s garden is both haunting and mystical – a room that exists in limbo. Similarly, Nico Stephou’s room served as a misty place of mourning that is darker and gloomier. I found myself returning again and again to Nico’s room – it made me feel like I was caught within a floating digital brass-wind chime. Nico’s shared a similar aesthetic as Stelio’s and Anastasia’s garden as it showcased their simultaneous music production practice. Both gardens are more enjoyable with the VR set however even without VR, they both evoke ideas of shine & shininess; a visual property performed and realised in Maria Andreou’s, Despina Rangou’s and Elena Savvidou’s garden as well.

I waited in anticipation whilst admiring the interplay of reflections in their garden’s lobby which I then discovered was the interior of a volcano – a metaphorical implosion of the world. I digitally walk in their multi-layered room, immersing myself in the various installations that meld into each other as one in a process similar to grafting. The room presented a walk-through volcano by Elena with textured inscriptions of Ancient Cypriot syllabary by Maria and a two channel video relating to ideas of the Anthropocene 10 by Despina. The video speaks to us in a humming robotic voice about the geotrauma of our planet relating it to our own body consistent with Elena’s volcanic digital sculpture. All elements came together organically and coherently within this garden, offering as many twists and turns, depths and distances and places to wonder as moments of powerful sentiment similar to the excitement of entering bouncy castle. The room felt like layers of colourful see-through soft plastic and the writing on the mountain seemed concrete, made of soil. The iridescent saturated colours and mystical sounds created sometimes an interesting contrast to the haunting subject of the room, as they were sharp and reassuring. Despite the doomsday vibes, perhaps an allegory for 2020, their text offered a new breath of ideas to the project that supported interesting theory as it emotionally discussed form and surface as well as notions of liquidity between the digital and the real.

I navigate through WADS, moving from one garden to another using its portals and suddenly found myself in Angeliki Koutsodimitropoulou’s and Marietta Mavrokordatou’s garden which seems to work as an infinite loop for the viewer. One walks through the anxiety-inducing virtual tunnel to find themselves right back where they started, however feeling drifted and relaxed. The environment feels like a Newton’s cradle11: a swinging ball pendulum evoking neo-digital minimalism12 and a sense of (un)balance. The soundscape was tantalising as situated itself somewhere between mindfulness and brainwashing. This was one of the rooms, unlike others, where an almost meditative experience is created, raising questions about the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic implications of artificial visual worlds.

Marina Kassianidou and Peter Eramian’s room takes a very different approach as it appears to be a virtual translation of a physical space – specifically the art space for Thkio Ppallies (2PP)13; a space that Marina has exhibited in before and Peter runs with Stelios Kallinikou. For Marina’s part of the room, each surface is covered in a floral print chosen by the artist and adapted into virtual reality. Unkempt emerges from collages with fabric from 201414 however it is no longer a two-dimensional surface, but a 360° world, where the viewer enters a colourful, plush and soft landscape. The light touching the different surfaces adds a layer of physicality to the virtual installation that seems like a maze. Peter’s work comes to complete this exchange of virtual and real matter in the garden, as he re-creates the 2PP exhibition space adorning the walls with photographic works. Viewers are free to wander through the installation which likely correlates on scale with the physical scenography of 2PP. Here, one can clear their head from the multiple and sometimes clashing bold colours, movements, surfaces and volumes from other rooms. A rare moment of subtlety was supplied by Peter and Marina in comparison to the multiple (and sometimes clashing) colour palettes of other gardens. Raissa Angeli’s room took a similar approach of subtlety, yet more melancholic.

Raissa was another artist who saw this project as an opportunity to rework her ideas into a digital format. Her DAD, an impressive clay sculpture of an Assyrian tent on fire from 640 BC. It resembles hands and feels like a vehicle for meaning, a metaphorical device created by its form and materiality alone. Raissa makes use of digital technology to reincarnate a work conveying loss and mourning – Bach’s Partita no.2 in B major, perhaps a deliberate cliché, creates an immediate sentimental effect, contributing to a dramatisation of the sculpture’s subject and truth affect. The work is a natural extension of her practice. Raissa’s room serves as a reminder that, sometimes, the simplest gestures are the most powerful. It is an emotional space, with a clear vision and no noise, minimal in its intentions, creating unique digital texture through familiar surfaces, communicating more feeling than probably any other room. Much like Peter and Marina’s room, one can recognise the artist almost immediately.

The exhibition has some brilliant flashes and manages to portray in its own light discrepancies between the continuity of sensation and the impressiveness of digital technology. Nevertheless, with the sheer volume of presented installations, WADS, as a whole, ran the risk of feeling inconsistent and leaving the viewer adrift. Space, digital or physical, transforms around us and the other way around, but in this project it loads, sometimes in a clunky way as we wait for the environment to change. The exhibition and its curatorial statement could arguably deal more with the relationship between sensibility and experience. The curatorial text gives little context or information for the exhibition but it manages to highlight the importance of grafting both in real and allegorical ways, focusing on the delicateness and longevity that it requires. WADS, with its relation to gardens, could be a prototype experiment in digital exhibition making. Through exploring these digital gardens as spaces, we uncover that co-creation, cross-pollination and grafting are still in their infancy when translated to the virtual with plenty of room to grow.

The practicality of architecture should be acknowledged when discussing digital spaces. In the digital realm, surfaces and materiality are erased and so when we talk about the digital, we must talk about how surfaces and materiality change as well. In renegotiating the nature of surface and materiality, these gardens, if properly assembled, constitute the architecture of digital broadcast, both facilitating and defining our experience in the space. Surface and materiality become unchained from preconceived notions of what constitutes the architecture of VR. WADS is a project where architecture is an essential element as it houses, choreographs, connects and conditions our bodies. Taking into consideration this architectural element, we must remember that the body inhabits architecture – whether physical or digital – and architecture inhabits the physical and digital body. Virtual escapism can be perfect for the pandemic, however, when museums, spaces and galleries across the world reopen, the question will not be digital or physical, but how to capitalise on the power of both. Despite these technologies being in their infancy, the blurring of real life events with digital worlds will enable more people to participate, sharing the same space, event or performance.

Even though I am a firm believer that virtualities and digital materialities are here to stay, whether we like it or not, my honest concern is that foundations, institutions and organisations might be trying too hard to bring their program online. Following this explosion of virtual exhibitions in a faster-than-usual pace, this could have been the case with WADS, an experiment that might have been rushed, allowing for little time to create the artworks and framework. Watching art on devices, whether laptops, tablets, phones, or VR (commonly associated with headaches and vertigo) alone from the comfort of your home is a disorienting experience. These create an experience of detachment that art (usually) tries not to convey. The experience of art is also an experience of community and interaction without saying that art shall not be enjoyed ‘solo’.

These screen-based experiences are least profound because the majority fail engagement: they become temporary scenarios that are troubling since these scenarios for contact precisely lack contact. In the digital world, most senses become relatively flat, particularly in comparison with the voluptuous capabilities determined by the surface. How can we react to the conceptions and designs of our virtual experience? Which emotional and intellectual reactions could be triggered? How real are our creations, interactions and experiences? 

The environment where audiences engage with art is crucial, and this exhibition opens a discussion on such environments and spaces. Cultural policy in Cyprus is almost dispassionate whereas it should be seeking to regulate how cultural resources are produced, distributed, and used with a view to shaping the cultural and moral conditions of audiences, creatives as well as institutions, museums and spaces. In 2020, it is evermore essential to consider available public resources, private resources as well as national and international interests  in the construction or reinforcement of specific policies so that they reflect identities and are inclusive when it comes to the future of public funding.

Here in Cyprus, there is no individual Ministry of Culture and when an Advisory board was finally initiated, the approach towards the selection was flawed with the bare minimum representation for females, younger creatives and audiences, minorities or LGBTQ+ people. The funding schemes provided by the Cultural Services of the Ministry are sometimes irrelevant to the conditions of labour and artistic production – this is most prominent when the funds they disperse do not take into account digital infrastructures. RISE, being a not for profit organisation, has clear purposes fitting within the institutional realm. It is interested in multifaceted inter-disciplinary projects as well as audience engagement, and it offers alternative funding to the government’s sometimes distanced model of funding. However, if institutions, like Rise, must invest in something, arguably a good start would be in the establishment of self-supporting micro-systems that foster interconnection between culture market agents and executives, creators, cultural professionals, institutions and organisations and audiences. This more engaged system would encompass more forms of collaboration than present-day governmental cultural policies appear to do, improving mechanisms of development and communication, reflecting those involved, considering site-specific approaches, networks and alliances and alternative mixed economies.

Interconnection could be achieved by sharing of all types of resources, or creating feedback loops with audiences, artists and creative partners. Perhaps they could carry out new commons and support local efforts or even businesses, to consider micro-funding rather than striving to appear international and universal. In times of crisis, the sense of community and affinity is crucial. Culture policy makers should think of new ways to stay relevant, first locally and then internationally. This could be achieved  by re-scaling their policies, reconsidering their audiences and reach, thus re-building trust in culture and eradicating feelings of elitism in the arts. Understanding their communities and people, liaisons, artists, audiences and listen but truly listen and delegate.

How can we react to the making and designs of our virtual experience? Which emotional and intellectual reactions could be triggered? How real are our creations, interactions and experiences, particularly in the digital? Such virtual worlds question the basic conditions of perception and the ways we construct perceptions of reality through and out of them. The longevity of these worlds depend on the continuum of experience15 – “a flow that emanates through time as duration”16. This is consciousness as sensibility and it makes us understand that the avatar has not replaced us. The intense expansion of our extended realities means that we use technologies which accelerate our lives. After all, the sun never sets on the global village.

WADS was curated by Demetris Shammas, Myrto Aristidou, Emiddio Vasquez HadjilyraConstantinos Miltiadis.

You can visit WADS by clicking here.
Stelios Ilchouk’s & Anastasia Dolitsay’s room, here.
Nico Stephou’s room, here.
Maria Andreou’s, Despina Rangou’s & Elena Savvidou’s room, here.
Angeliki Koutsodimitropoulou’s & Marietta Mavrokordatou’s room, here.
Peter Eramian & Marina Kassianidou’s room, here.
Raissa Angeli’s room, here.

  1. RISE is the Research Centre of Excellence in Cyprus focusing on Interactive media, smart systems and emerging technologies aiming to empower knowledge and technology transfer in the region. It is a joint venture between the three public universities of Cyprus: University of Cyprus, Cyprus University of Technology, and Open University of Cyprus; as well as the Municipality of Nicosia, and two renowned international partners, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany and the University College London in the UK.
  2. Ars Electronica Linz GmbH is an Austrian cultural, educational and scientific institute active in the field of new media art, founded in Linz in 1979. It is based at the Ars Electronica Center (AEC), which houses the Museum of the Future, in the city of Linz. Ars Electronica’s activities focus on the interlinkages between art, technology and society.
  3. Biopolitics is an intersectional field between human biology and politics. It is a political wisdom taking into consideration the administration of life and a locality’s populations as its subject. To quote Michel Foucault, it is “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order.”
  4. Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-generated environment with scenes and objects that appear to be real, making the user feel they are immersed in their surroundings. This environment is perceived through a device known as a Virtual Reality headset or helmet.
  5. Augmented reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory and olfactory. AR can be defined as a system that fulfils three basic features: a combination of real and virtual worlds, real-time interaction, and accurate 3D registration of virtual and real objects.
  6. Here I opt to use the word ‘techniques’ instead of ‘technologies’ as its definition refers to a skilful or efficient way of achieving or carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure. ‘Technologies’ in this context would refer to something digital whereas techniques incorporates physical qualities.
  7. The framework to understand these situations and questions is social, institutional, linguistic, technical and more.
  8. Grafting is a technique that joins two plants into one. In general, a wound is created on one of the plants, and the other is inserted into that wound so each plant’s tissues can grow together. Most fruit trees today are grafted onto rootstock.
  9. Iridescence is defined as vivid colours which change with the angle of incidence or viewing due to optical wave interference in the multilayer structure present at the wavelength scale underneath the surface. Such visual characteristic is usually associated with surfaces that change colour depending on viewing angles.
  10. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new” is called this way because humankind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.
  11. The Newton’s cradle is a device that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy using a series of swinging spheres. When one sphere at the end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary spheres, transmitting a force through the stationary spheres that pushes the last sphere upward. The last sphere swings back and strikes the still nearly stationary spheres, repeating the effect in the opposite direction. For example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_cradle#/media/File:Newtons_cradle_animation_book_2.gif
  12. Digital Minimalism is a term coined by author and computer science professor Cal Newport in his book of the same name. Digital minimalism is a philosophy of technology use based on the understanding that our relationship with our apps, tools, and phones is nuanced and deserves more attention than we give it. Digital Minimalism is a specific application of the general minimalist philosophy to the role of technology in our lives. Read more: https://bjgp.org/content/69/681/189/tab-article-info
  13. From their website: Thkio Ppalies is a non-profit artist-run space in Nicosia, Cyprus, founded by Stelios Kallinikou & Peter Eramian. The space is committed to the facilitation and production of creative and intellectual endeavours across a wide range of contemporary practices. Experimentation, critique and collaboration are encouraged with the intent of nurturing inclusive networks between artists, curators and writers. Thkio Ppalies (Θκιό Ππαλιές) is a common non-standard Cypriot expression meaning quick execution, chop chop.
  14. The artist notes that the photographs that make up the installation are of Unkempt III, a collage made in Boulder Colorado in 2018 with fabric that was bought in Limassol in 2014 and manufactured in the USA around 2009.
  15. Simply put, that our experiences will be the same unless its extremities are vastly different.
  16. (Franco Bifo Berardi. 2019. Sensitive) Consciousness and Time: Against the Transhumanist Utopia. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/98/257322/sensitive-consciousness-and-time-against-the-transhumanist-utopia

Evagoria (Eria) Dapola is a curator, theorist and writer based in Cyprus and Greece. She is the guest curator of the Athens School of Fine Arts where she was a teaching fellow from January to June 2020. She is a member of the United Kingdom Museums Association, the International Association of Photography and Theory and International Association for Semiotic Studies. She is affiliated with the Cultural Foundation of the Bank of Cyprus and between 2017-2020 where she was the digital curator. She has founded the Emerging Curators Reading Club, a virtual / physical platform for curators and theorists that operates independently at regular intervals. The club focuses on alternative forms of understanding and sharing, emphasising on text, theory, live reading and fresh forms of performativity carried out by individuals, collectives, both physically and digitally. Eria is also responsible for Scale Appropriate Digital, a digital editorial platform and curatorial initiative responsible for insta-residencies and visual essays. She works directly with artists and other art practitioners, her writing and curatorial practice develops through responding to encounters and collaborations. Eria is an avid philosophy reader whilst her interests vary from visual and bio-politics to phenomenology, semiotics and semantics.

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